Neuroscience is here to stay - and the insights it provides can be far more compelling than those from the traditional focus group.
That's been the message from many researchers over recent years, as they use techniques from eye-tracking to FMRI to track the brain's unconscious reactions to various stimuli. And it's a message that was brought home once more by Gemma Calvert, founder of Neurosense, at a meeting of the Account Planners Group in London last night.
To Calvert, neuroscience is simply "consumer research using modern tools". She provided a short primer on how the part of the brain that governs emotions, otherwise known as the limbic system, is responsible for much human behaviour, including many decisions that we think are taken consciously. Citing the oft-quoted statistic that 85% of conscious behaviours are actually driven by unconscious processes, Calvert argued that we trick ourselves into believing we control such behaviours via a (self-deluding) process of "post hoc rationalisation".
The limitations of our conscious brain also makes us embarrassingly easy to fool, as demonstrated by this famous experiment:
Calvert said: "The brain makes a decision several milliseconds before you're even conscious of having made it. We then make a choice and, even if you don't know why you made that choice, you're still able to give me a rational explanation. You confabulate - you make it up."
This insight has obvious and wide-ranging implications for market research, particularly the traditional system of focus group research: after all, people tend to be using their conscious brain when they're filling in a questionnaire. And in a world where 75% of new products fail in their first year - a total that rises to 97% in Japan - knowing how the consumer really feels, rather than how they think they feel, is extremely important.
To illustrate her points, Calvert cited a couple of cases that showed neuroscience research in action. One, for a BBC science show, saw a female participant hooked up to an FMRI scanner and an EEG cap and then shown photographs of five potential suitors, one of which she picked to go on a date with. Her subconscious reactions to the images were measured, in order to predict which she would choose. (The part of the brain being analysed was the ventral striatum, which is connected to sexual attraction.) And the image which showed the highest level of response was of the man the subject went on to pick for the date.
Naturally, data from measuring these types of responses can be employed by advertisers in many ways; for example, it could prove an effective way of picking which celebrity to approach to endorse a brand. And the BBC experiment proved useful for two people, at least. "Three years later, the couple were still together," Calvert said.
Sometimes, results from focus group and neuroscience-based research differ, as occurred when Neurosense undertook a project for Dove. The Unilever-owned firm was considering brand extensions into the homeware and babycare sectors, and wanted to see whether or not this would be a good idea. Neural responses to mock-ups of the products revealed a positive response to the babycare range but a negative response to the homeware; focus group research suggested that sentiment was broadly positive for both ranges.
What none of the subjects knew was that a Dove homeware launch had already been launched in the US - but had failed to gain traction among consumers. The neuroscientists' advice was to go ahead with the babycare products only.
All this isn't to characterise neuroscience as a panacea for all the inherent limitations of traditional market research. Indeed, Calvert was careful to distance herself from the idea that you can precisely identify individual purchasing decisions through neuroscientific tools alone.
"There is no buy button in the brain - if only it could be so simple," she said. "It's always a co-ordinated set of brain areas."
But it's still little wonder there has been much excitement about neuroscience on both the client and agency side over recent years. And there have been a steady stream of papers on the subject published by Warc.
Should you want to know more, why not take a look at the Admap special issue on neuroscience from earlier this year, which includes insight and analysis from experts including PHD's David Wilding and Graham Page of Millward Brown.